A levels or IB – which is better for me?

In the UK, the traditional route into higher education after GCSEs is to study A Levels for two years. However, there are an increasing number of schools (mainly public schools) that have started offering IB (International Baccalaureate) courses to prospective students. While IB is gaining a wider recognition by many universities, some UK schools offer both options to students, some however solely offer one or the other. As this is a crucial factor in deciding which school to attend, it is important to understand what each qualification entails. This article will draw on a comparison between A Levels and IB and to highlight the key differences.

a levels or ib in boarding schoolWhat are A Levels?

A Levels are a traditional qualification in the UK for students aged between 16 and 19. The two-year programme is assessed by a series of exams at the end of two years’ study. Unlike vocational qualifications such as NVQ, A Levels are predominantly taken by students who want to pursue their academic interest into higher education. Most UK universities require a minimum of three A-levels (excluding General Studies).

What is IB (International Baccalaureate)?

IB is an international qualification that is increasingly gaining popularity in the UK. Similar to A Levels, it is also a two-year programme for students aged 16 and above preparing for university entry. However, as can be seen in the chart below, IB has a very different structure in comparison to A Levels.

Comparison Table of A Levels vs IB
A LevelsIB
Age16 -19
DurationA two-year programme
AcceptanceAccepted by all UK universities and around the world
Number of Subjects3 subjects6 subjects
Subject ChoiceOver 40 A Level subjects to choose fromStudents must take Maths, English, a language, a science and a humanity, and one other of their choice
Assessment Method Exam based– Exams
– Extended essay (4000 words) on a topic related to one of the subjects they are studying
– Theory of Knowledge essay (1600 words) about the nature of knowledge
– 150 CAS hours:
○ Creativity – to develop students’ artistic flare
○ Activity – to take a physical activity beside academic learning
○ Service – to provide a voluntary service to the local community
DifficultyStandardDemanding & challenging
Personal DevelopmentSpecific subject knowledgeWell-rounded
GradingA*- E1-7
AvailabilityMajority of UK schools155 UK schools


Should I choose to take A Levels?

As students’ subject choice at 16 years old determines the course options available to them at university, A Levels are suitable for students who already know the subject area they want to specialise in. For instance, a student with a strong literary background who lacks mathematical ability may decide from very early on that she wants to study English at university. A Levels offer her the opportunity to specialise in English literacy related subjects without having to study any irrelevant subjects that she is not good at or not interested in and therefore compromising her overall grades.

a levels vs ib in UK schoolsShould I choose to take IB?

Taking IB is a good option for those who are yet to decide the subject area they want to study at university. Studying IB’s diverse range of subjects allows students to explore a variety of disciplines from humanities to sciences over the course of two years. Unlike A Levels, university entry requirements for the IB qualification are not subject specific, but rather based on the overall points. This means that students are not restricted to one academic discipline when it comes to applying for courses at university.

IB’s curriculums prepare students well for the transition from Sixth Form to university, as it equips students with independent study skills such as literature research skills, essay writing skills and effective reading skills. This allows IB students to quickly adapt to the university way of studying from very early on and offer them a competitive edge. IB also has a huge emphasis on outside academic learning and belief that personal development is equally important as academic attainment. It therefore produces a well-rounded student.


When it comes to answering the question of which qualification you should choose, there is no straight answer. While both routes are widely accepted for entry into university, both have pros and cons. It very much depends on your personal circumstances. As David Miles, the deputy head at Gresham’s School precisely put:

“The IB is more about an ethos of an educational style, while A-levels place more emphasis on individual subject knowledge.”

Ultimately, whichever option you choose, the end goal is the same – to gain entry into a good university whether in the UK or in another country. Therefore, the most important piece of advice is to choose an option which will allow you to study subjects that you enjoy which will encourage you to work hard and achieve the grades you need to progress to the best academic future available to you.